Ravens 33, Giants 14Ravens 33, Giants 14
Strategy: Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell finally put his creative stamp on the offense, orchestrating season highs with 533 yards of total offense and 224 rushing yards. That included an option pitchout from Joe Flacco, getting Ray Rice isolated against slower linebackers to good effect, and selectively targeting suspect cornerback Corey Webster. Getting wide receiver Torrey Smith in single coverage against Webster was an effective gambit to gain separation. They used faster-developing plays. The Ravens used no-huddle 21 times and a shotgun formation 22 times out of 81 snaps. Of the Ravens' 10 longest plays, seven came out of no-huddle or shotgun looks. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees deployed his safeties as edge pass rushers to get a speed mismatch, lining up Courtney Upshaw at nose tackle to allow him to shoot gaps. Pees brought fire blitzes inside with linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo to disrupt Eli Manning.
Personnel: Ellerbe's return provided a boost to the defense. Ma'ake Kemoeatu started at nose tackle, but Terrence Cody played slightly better as Kemoeatu had little impact. James Ihedigbo started at strong safety with Bernard Pollard out again with damaged ribs. Ihedigbo had two quarterback hits. Chykie Brown proved capable in nickel duties, replacing Jimmy Smith. Right guard Marshal Yanda's presence upgraded the blocking, taking pressure off rookie Kelechi Osemele. Tight end Ed Dickson's return bolstered the offense.
What went right: Flacco was decisive and accurate, delivering the football with confidence and timing. He was 7-for-7 throwing to Anquan Boldin, 6-for-7 targeting Rice, 5-for-11 to Smith for 88 yards and a score and 4-for-5 to tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco's quarterback sneak went for a touchdown this time instead of a fumble. The pass blockers improved, allowing no sacks and just two quarterback hits. Terrell Suggs' torn right biceps wasn't as problematic this game. Manning was sacked three times, and the Ravens had a season-high nine quarterback hits. Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce ran roughshod, each eclipsing 100 yards. Pierce displayed his speed on a career-long 78-yard run. Justin Tucker kicked four field goals.
What went wrong: Cary Williams had some coverage lapses, misplaying the ball. Ed Reed's high shoulder hit on Victor Cruz could be costly through a fine or even a suspension as the NFL regards him as a repeat offender. Upshaw and Josh Bynes were driven several yards backward on a touchdown run. Michael Oher managed to commit three penalties in one drive: a false start, holding and a personal foul.
Turning point: Rice sprinted away from overmatched linebacker Michael Boley, accelerating for a 27-yard touchdown reception that staked the Ravens to a commanding 24-7 lead before halftime.
X-factor: Torrey Smith's speed sets him apart, but his improved body control and hands are what allowed him to break out of a mini-slump. He had a slick one-handed sideline catch. Defenses will have to account for the former Maryland standout during the playoffs.
Bengals 13, Steelers 10
Strategy: Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden loves to have Andy Dalton throw deep to ultra-talented wide receiver A.J. Green. Green was targeted 18 times and made 10 receptions for 116 yards, with one of those catches setting up the game-winning field goal. Green is one of the most gifted young players around, the prototypical go-to guy. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins and big tight end Jermaine Gresham are complementary options for Dalton, who's willing to take chances and paid the consequences with two interceptions and six sacks while launching 41 passes Sunday. Cincinnati had to abandon an unproductive running game. The Bengals have a formidable defensive front, and Mike Zimmer doesn't need to call blitzes constantly. He can rely on the considerable talents of star defensive tackle Geno Atkins — one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL — and athletic, rangy defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Zimmer is regarded as somewhat unpredictable and will bring safety and cornerback blitzes on occasion.
Personnel: Gritty left tackle Andrew Whitworth isn't that quick, but he has a strong hand punch and a good track record of stonewalling Terrell Suggs. Kevin Zeitler is a stout rookie guard, a powerful drive blocker. Gresham is a difficult assignment because he resembles a power forward. Atkins is a relentless combination run-stopper and pass-rusher with 13 sacks and four forced fumbles. He gave Matt Birk fits in September, and the ravens will need to build an effective game plan to prevent him from creating penetration. Linebacker Rey Maualuga has dropped 20 pounds to upgrade his mobility. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has matured. He's operating with a serious, no-nonsense approach nowadays, and it shows in his play.
What went right: Green and Dalton built a good rhythm. Jones provided a shifty change of pace downfield. The defensive line got a lot of push, shooting gaps. The secondary prevented Ben Roethlisberger from striking deep. Leon Hall read his keys to pick off Roethlisberger for an interception that he returned for a touchdown. Roethlisberger completed only half his throws for one touchdown with two interceptions, resulting in 10 points and a low 58.6 quarterback rating.
What went wrong: Dalton held the football too long, resulting in some coverage sacks. He didn't always make good decisions on when to give up on a play. He was intercepted twice by Cortez Allen, who's usually an easy mark. The running game got obliterated, as "The Law Firm," BenJarvus Green-Ellis was handcuffed for 14 rushing yards on 15 carries for a 0.9 average. Dick LeBeau's run blitzes were effective. A holding penalty negated Jones' long punt return.
Turning point: Josh Brown kicked a 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to seal a 13-10 win and the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs for the Bengals. It was set up by Reggie Nelson's picking off an overthrown pass intended for Mike Wallace and Dalton's 21-yard sideline completion to Green to position Brown for the game-winner.
X-factor: Dalton performed some of his best work in clutch moments. Shaky earlier in the game, Dalton completed nine of 13 passes for 107 yards in the fourth quarter with one interception. He connected with Green for five completions for 78 yards in the final quarter.